Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Review: 'The Wider Earth' at the Natural History Museum, 23rd October 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The image of Charles Darwin is set in stone. Bushy eyebrows, an impressive white beard, a bald head and a thoughtful and serious gaze. Even portrayals of his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle tend to depict him like this, as if he was born, lived and died an old man.

But Darwin was just 22 when the ship departed from Plymouth, and Dead Puppet Society's The Wider Earth shows us a young Darwin (Bradley Foster) teetering on the edge of greatness.  Yet to make a name for himself, he worries that he's wasting the opportunity this voyage provides and, when he does begin to tease out the threads that comprise his famous theory, he's terrified of their implications.

Though David Morton's script isn't necessarily aimed at children, this is a broadly educational play about Darwin and the Imperial society that he lived in. While the narrative is, for the most part, a straight A-B story consisting of the preparation of the Beagle's journey, the journey itself and then the return home, the characters are almost always engaged in philosophical and political debates. 

Darwin and the crew argue with one another about the British Empire's tolerance of slavery and efforts to abolish it, the place of Christianity within society, the morality of Empire, the importance of reasoned debate and whether truth in and of itself is an ideal to be pursued. It's not dense theory, but I've got to give the show credit for refusing to underestimate children's willingness to engage with political and ethical issues.

I particularly enjoyed the way the show dealt with religion. While it opens with a prayer and every single character (including Darwin) believes in God, the show is almost casually postchristian. 

The Wider Earth treats the voyage of the Beagle as a protracted labour in which the modern world struggles to be born, with Darwin cast as midwife. Characters representing the old world like Captain FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones) are so culturally immersed in racism that they cannot perceive it, while dogmatic religious types like missionary Richard Matthews (Ian Houghton) aren't treated as antagonists but rather unfortunate people who are unable to perceive the truth of nature.

From a contemporary perspective it's difficult to imagine the huge cultural shift caused by accepting evolution. The theory kicked out the foundations of man's importance on the planet, rendering us 'just' another animal. And, as the play's characters quickly realise, if Darwin is right, it would mean that slavery is an abomination (as all men are inherently equal), that God does not have a plan for us (if he even exists at all), that the concept of the soul is just wishful thinking and that chaos reigns in the universe. 

The characters appear to understand (and react with varying levels of horror) that Darwin's thinking represents the moment the tide begins recede for Christianity. It's still receding today, with most Christians (consciously or unconsciously) treating the Bible less like the unquestioned word of God and more like a collection of allegories and aphorisms to live by - that or just a feeble attempt to convince themselves that they are important in a vast, uncaring universe.

Morton neatly serves up a few metaphors of what's going on in these character's minds. The missionary sees the land he intends to convert reject him in a deadly firestorm that sends him retreating to the safety of the ship. Meanwhile, Captain FitzRoy, whose mission is to accurately chart what he believes is God's static creation, has a crisis of faith when he sees volcanoes and earthquakes transforming the Earth before his eyes. His goal is to precisely chart the world as it is and always will be - and realising that this is impossible nearly breaks him.

(Incidentally, it's a bit of a sick joke that Captain FitzRoy regains his confidence only when Darwin explains that his research may prove the existence of God and that the Beagle is therefore on a holy mission, only for his Captaincy actually being key to delivering a fatal blow to the divine jugular. But then he's a big ol' racist imperialist so nuts to him.)

I don't know if any of the 10 or 11-year-olds in the audience will be excitedly discussing the philosophical and cultural death of God in the playgrounds the next day. But the ideas within The Wider Earth play are so concisely and clearly communicated that they will inevitably one day bear fruit.

All that is the satisfying filling inside this theatrical sandwich, but the bread is good too. The revolving set easily conjures up locations from tropical islands to the stuffy offices of a Cambridge don, the rear projections are well-produced, the score is great and the cast doesn't put a foot wrong. 

Funnily though, the animal puppets - billed as a major reason to see the show - don't actually play that big a role. They're either used to mask scene changes or in a handful of scenes where they interact with Darwin. They're nice enough to look at, but if you go into this expecting two hours of fun on-stage animals you're going to be disappointed.

It leaves this as a pretty damn cerebral kid's show. While the surface is a boy's own adventure story it carries a payload of ideas that are as striking now as they were when Darwin first thought them up. If you ever needed an argument that one idea can change the world, The Wider Earth provides it.

The Wider Earth is at the Natural History Museum until December 30. Tickets here.

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